Winter Wonderland: Surviving Jonas

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Jonas – 1. Sean – 0.

It began Friday, we knew it was coming. We filled the cars with gas. Filled two cans of diesel fuel for the tractor. Found the snow shovel. Stacked hay on the wagon next to the fence, so we could kick bales into the field, like footballs from a tee. Bought an inflatable mattress for the tack room, in case the help stayed (hilarious). Stocked the kitchen with bread, milk, eggs, cereal, frozen pizzas, beer. Annie planned a meal for every night, frozen pizzas were the last resort.

I plowed the driveway for hours Friday night. Springsteen played in my ears. It was cold. But, I could see what I had done, success, none of the long, slow, drawn-out drip of writing stories or managing horses when progress gets churned up in the process and gratification comes eventually, if at all. No, this was instant, look at my paths, a foot of snow cleared, thrown out of the way like rodeo clowns. You could land a plane on our driveway. It felt good.

And then it didn’t.

Saturday morning, early, I looked out of the window and saw nothing but white, Rudolph meet the Abominable Snowman. Well, I saw a few tree limbs, but couldn’t see the fence of the front field, a screen pass from the house. Much less the two horses in the front field. The aptly named White Man – Appleton Stakes winner Dictina’s Boy – and my foxhunter, Border Agent. They were out there somewhere, weren’t they? My paths? That’s funny. Annie shrieked that we needed to bring in the horses from the front field, if we could just find the front field.

I began sliding on layers, Under Armour, North Face, Carhartt.

I opened the only door that would open and it nearly blew off the hinges. I now understood the difference between a snowstorm and a blizzard. The wind ripped from the north, across the backfield, funneling between the woods and the ridge, ricocheting off the barn, drifts had already formed, deep and sharp, like they were drawn on a chalkboard. I began to shovel the walk, got to the driveway and looked across the farm to the barn, less than a furlong away, I only recognized it because I knew it was there. I shoveled, repeating newscaster’s absurd mantra, ‘use your legs, not your back,’ then threw the shovel over my shoulder and started trudging, aiming for a low spot near the tree and then angling toward the fence on the right. I shimmied along the second board of the fence, holding on to the top board for balance, then angled left to the barn. I slid open the doors and Little Grey, the stray cat who’s usually at the house, greeted me with a sharp meow, like a dart into sheet metal. “Hey, cat, we’re in this together.”

Teddy, Blue, Royal Bonsai, Apse and Eagle Poise looked over the yokes of their doors, yearning for normalcy, which they knew was gone. The bank barn, built in the 1800s felt cozy, an igloo, as the wind whipped off the metal roof. I dumped five buckets of feed in the tubs, half rations because of the impending confinement, soaked each with extra hot water. I waded through snow that came to my knees to feed Kissin Conquest, in the last stall in the shedrow wing, snow had blown between the battens and the oak boards, draped over the straw banks at the back of his stall. I opened the top door to check on Eli, our black and brown Pygmy goat, he looked up from his nook in the straw, ‘baaaahhhhh.’ He was fine.

I took a deep breath and began to assess – we have electricity, buckets aren’t frozen, horses, goat, cat are fine in the barn. That’s good. Now, to go see White Man and Border, I know they’re out there somewhere, I pulled a pair of Oakley ski goggles over my eyes and Shackletoned, trying to find my previous boot marks. The horses looked at me from under their turn-out shed roof, making me come see them, rather than the other way around like most mornings. Mini icicles dangled from White Man’s long hair under his chin and along the bottom of his neck, he rubbed his head on my shoulder, pushing me for an answer. I hung two buckets of steaming breakfast on the fence and they devoured it.

I’ve ridden horses, sold horses, bought horses, bet horses, trained horses, owned horses, written about horses and this was the first time I felt responsible for their lives, urging them to drink water, move out of the shed, eat hay, stay warm, don’t die on me now. 

Annie hiked out and began to unearth the hay, tied under a tarp, from the wagon, “What the hell kind of knot is this?” she asked. I yelled, “Think like Charles.” The knot-tying Charles Lee possesses a simple, pragmatic problem-solving technique to most things. Annie rolled the jump rail, tied in binder twine, off the top and it opened like a Christmas present, or something like that. The horses had feed, water and hay. After a long discussion – debate – we decided to leave White Man and Border in the front field, thinking they were better moving around, better in their natural surroundings, hoping.

I hiked to the tractor, parked next to the house, brushed the snow off the gauges and turned the key a quarter turn, waited for the fuel gauge to reach the top, then turned the key all the way to the right. Music to my ears. I lowered the blade and began to scrape snow, the engine groaned, the RPM’s spiked to over 2,500, I wondered if that’s bad as I switched to Johnny Cash on Spotify. It was arduous, but I made paths and moved snow enough to make it passable, we could at least walk in the tire tracks.

The six in the barn were stuck. We couldn’t get to the paddocks, the snow had drifted halfway up the gates to each field. I shoveled paths to the tack room, to the muck pit and cleaned six stalls, methodically, painstakingly slow, pushing the wheelbarrow through snow, like rolling a refrigerator up a hill. Kiss shook his head, hoping to go out. Teddy didn’t care. Blue weaved at his back window, unable to deal with a change to his routine. Eagle Poise, aloof, he would have gone or stayed. Apse and Royal Bonsai sparred, bars separating them.

Miles and Annie hiked to the barn, Miles crawled through the snow, around the barn and out of sight. I chased him, worried I’d lose him in the drifts. He asked me to build a snow fort. I told him I would. He complained he was cold and went in the tack room, Annie’s college history book kept him company, he told me about the Civil War every time I came in to warm up. They said the blizzard would be over by 3:00 Saturday afternoon, it kept snowing and blowing well into the night. Morning had turned to afternoon and afternoon turned to night. I threw another bale of hay to White Man and Border, you could trace their every move by the paths, shed to automatic waterer, to flakes of hay strewn in the snow, a few intrepid forays into the deep snow, then retreat. We changed White Man’s turnout rug, frozen and stiff, he seemed warmer.

Sunday morning felt a lot like Saturday morning. No sign of a plow on Snake Hill Road. The tractor was stuck. I shoveled a circle in front of the barn and dumped manure from the stalls, at least we had a ring and traction. I slid the shank over Eagle Poise’s nose and walked into the light. He walked a few paces and stopped, stared across the farm, a white frozen tundra, and then nudged my shoulder, like he understood why he didn’t leave the barn the day before. I hot walked, er, cold walked six horses, my Carhartts scraping at the ankles, ice in the crevices, frozen. I thought about walking Money By Orleans, In Due Time and Assay Mark for my Dad at Delaware Park, my first summer job, in the early 80s. But, with a lot more on my mind, listening to NPR’s podcasts, Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewing writers, artists, activists – all doing work I wish I was doing. Annie mucked, I walked. Then I mucked and Annie walked. Teamwork. A 14-hour day, with a half hour break for four pieces of toast at noon. I limped to the house, pulled off sopping clothes that smelled like sweat and stall, took a shower, then melted into the couch. I devoured food, like dinner after a day’s racing when I was reducing, your body needing fuel, functioning like a machine.

Monday, still no plow. I tried the tractor, like pushing on a boulder. At least my paths hadn’t filled in, so we walked in circles. Monday afternoon, a plow rumbled into view, blinking lights, snow going up and over like a long, unbroken wave crashing onto the beach. We didn’t see a person or a plow from Friday afternoon to Monday afternoon. Dari and his brother Pita followed the plow to the foot of the driveway and then walked along the second board of the fenceline from the road to the barn, a long furlong, maybe. They waved, smiled, happy to be there, after being pent up at their house. Snow will do that to you; if you’re in, you want out and if you’re out, you want in. I handed them a shovel and a shank and crawled to the house. Cue Taps and shoot the rifles.

Tuesday, we dug a path to the round pen and turned out each horse, they snorted, pawed, jabbed their head through the snow, rolled, tried to buck and thought better of it. Dari and Pita did the heavy lifting while I tried to get my body to rejoin the team.

Tuesday night, close to midnight, Annie looked up from her computer and asked if there were anywhere else I’d rather live. I think she meant, for business, like Saratoga, Lexington, New York, Newmarket…

I had shoveled snow for four days. My cheeks were a cross between wind burn and sun burn, my lips were chapped, my muscles ached. Work deadlines (ah, yes, my real job) piled up around me, higher than the snow. The hall looked like a trade show for skiers and farmers, hats, gloves, socks, boots, jackets in stages of drying. I had fallen off the tack room roof, got run over by a horse and had to look behind me to see if my left arm was coming along. Jonas had kicked my ass.

And now my wife asked me if there were anywhere else I’d rather live. I looked at her and laughed, luckily I didn’t scream, there is a fine line in marriage.

“Honey, after the last four days. I’d rather live in a dumpster at the end of a dark alley in Queens.”

Then I kissed her on the cheek and said good night. To her and Jonas.